The first edition of this column came out June of 1990. The folks of a small parish in Monongahela didn't know what hit them. Their bulletin was a one page summary of basically nothing printed on a mimeo machine in which you had to correct mistakes (sic) by putting a purple liquid over the mistake and then typing over. The pastor whom I replaced was a sickly, saintly old soul who never put the collection total in the bulletin. I don't know which item stunned the parish more: The Sunday collection was now in the bulletin or P&WFW. Let's call it a toss-up.
I followed the example of my mentor, Franny Lackner who told me “Walter, when you get your first pastorate, talk conservatively and act liberally.” The annual Penance service started right way. No Canonical Warnings in Monongahela. For the first ever parish picnic, I followed the example of Mahatma Gandhi and took the worst job: I cleaned the bathrooms. I also learned how to apologize the right way: None of this “For those whom I may have offended stuff...” I went to the homes of the guys who ran the bocci tournament, knocked on their doors and said I was sorry for calling them male chauvinist pigs (but in a humorous way in my column) for not letting women participate in the tournament. A young pastor learns to do such things. They worked again for the parish picnic the following year and let both sexes in.
At the parish was a young hearing couple with two small deaf kids who would come every Sunday to Mass, and after mass I'd talk to the parents outside church, but the kids would stand there and stare at...everything but us. Inside for Mass it was worse for them, because let's face it, if hearing kids are bored at Mass, multiply that by ten for kids who are deaf, and well, that led to a call which eventually led me...here.
It killed me I couldn’t talk to those kids, so I decided to take a sign language class to do so. After three weeks of class and practicing, I was ready. Said hello to the parents, and when I caught their bored eyes, I looked at them and signed “Hi guys, how was school this week? What did you learn.” You should have seen their faces. They looked at each other and then me and then their parents. Sort of like Sasquatch hunters finding the big guy in the flesh for the first time I guess. Humphrey Bogart saying to Claude Rains at the end of “Casablanca”, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” took on a new meaning. Every week they couldn't wait to see what their priest was going to sign to them. Don't get me wrong. Mass was still boring, but now their priest could sign to them. And even today, that's the key to St. Mary of the Mount and the Catholic Deaf experience of worship: their priest can sign to them.
Fr. Al Cicola was retiring as pastor of the Deaf Community because of health, knew I had some background in sign language and asked me if I would like his job. “Al, I have my own parish, my own programs which I've always wanted to start. Thanks, but no thanks.” Catholic guilt is a powerful thing though, so after a couple of months of watching the Pittsburgh Catholic and seeing no one had taken the job, I called up the head of Clergy Personnel—a young priest name Dave Zubik—and said “David, this is Walt Rydzon. This is like the RCIA. It's the Rite of Inquiry, not the Rite of Acceptance.” But I had the job the next day.
I was scared to death to take this job. I felt like the guy sitting on the bench with the clean uniform while everyone else is in the game with uniforms dirty and bloody- in the heat of the contest doing more than me. But sometimes, no matter what your age, you have to get back into the game, and something was calling me to do this, so I left my own parish, my own programs and picked up my helmet and walked onto the field, and as Deacon Bob Barth, my friend, associate at St. Justin for sixteen years in Deaf Ministry and priestly work would say to me in his first note of welcome “Walt, welcome to the world of silence.”
I went to CCAC for two years for the Interpreter Training Program, and at St. Justin learned on the job with some of the best teachers in the world who would line up weekly after mass to tell me what mistakes I made signing. Do you know how similar the signs “embarrassment” and “prostitute” are in American Sign Language? Had my first Deaf wedding after three weeks on the job. Ask Shirley Fischer how many times I signed “hamburger” instead of “marriage.” Karen McGann, God rest her living saint soul was our inspiration from the Office of Disabilities, and then when Karen died imitating Christ from cancer, Sr. Michelle led us. The Deaf Community has truly been my second family.
These columns continued at St. Justin. Only got called in once there. Someone objected to the usual: married priests and women priests. But when you're the only guy in the diocese who signs, you do hold some trump cards.
Fr. Lou and I had a good run together here on the Mount in his time. We go back fifty-one years of friendship. That's a good friendship. You should have one like that. I don't want to take my day off with Lou, don't want to go on vacation with him. I'd end up in prison for manslaughter one. But when my Mom died, he was the only person who was going to have her funeral.
Then came the boy-priest. Fr. Michael has rejuvenated my priesthood. He has given me hope about the younger clergy. When he and I sat down to discuss combining our two parishes, each time we met to talk about what one healthy Eucharistic community could become on Mt. Washington, I would leave thinking I want to be a part of that parish. I want to be a priest in that parish. I hoped through some form of grace we could do this together. There was a time in the late fall of our merger talks when everyone on the Mount knew where they would be in the new parish except me. Michael would be pastor, all the parishioners on the hill would become members of the new St. Mary of the Mount on February 17, 2013, but yours truly was in limbo. God bless Bishop Zubik who put us together here, and the last four years have been the best of my forty-three years of serving in Pope Francis' celibate legionnaires, even though I still have problems with the celibate part.
I told the folks at St. Justin part of our sorrow at closing would be healed by us experiencing some of the best music in the diocese to enhance our prayer. Nothing has happened to change my mind except to say that under Amanda's vision our music has gotten even better. Sync that up with Karen leading the Deaf Choir, and it's all good. Finally, ultimate Type B that I am, this place functions because we have the best Type A's on our staff. Sandy, Holly, Bob, and in their time, Karen and Skip.
Well, that's my world and my story on the Mount, and I'm sticking to it. I've had a ball writing this. There were days when I was laughing so hard typing, even I knew it was funny. And there were some serious columns that reminded you and me, yeah, the cross is still a part of our life, but just a part. After all we are people of the Eucharist. The seats still face the altar.
I will save my social security money and still hope to head out West for a retreat at God's Cathedral and will take all my funeral cards and remember your family and friends that we've given back to God. I'll do the same, Lord willing, at Monument Valley when I ask some Navajo to drive me out to the desert for three hours, give him a hundred dollars and trust he'll come back to pick me up after my time of prayer with those cards. Of course I'll then drive to Las Vegas to see if I can win back the cost of my trip to pay for another one. Chaplain to the craps players and all that.
With more than half my priesthood spent on the Mount, saying good-bye in this column, while emotional is still very basic for me. Same way I've been doing it for forty-three years. Be it ending Mass, night prayer, funeral service, leaving someone's home, a baptism, you name it. What else...?
May the Lord bless you and keep you. His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with kindness and give you His peace.
It's been the greatest honor of my life to be your priest.